As you age, your immune system weakens, leaving you more susceptible to a variety of illnesses. In addition, chronic conditions, including COPD, diabetes, and high blood pressure, further elevate your risk of contracting common illnesses such as pneumonia and influenza.
Why Pneumonia Risk Increases with Age
As people age, cells do not rejuvenate as quickly, causing certain functions to slow down. Over time, these changes accumulate; most people need reading glasses beginning in their 40s, and, by retirement age, around 80 percent of people have one chronic disease, with 68 percent having at least two.
The slowdown of cell regeneration causes older Americans more susceptible to illnesses such as pneumonia. Pneumonia risk increases yet again if one of these chronic conditions involves the lungs, such as COPD or cystic fibrosis.
Another contributing factor is trauma, such as surgery or an injury leading to hospitalization. The top infection acquired during a hospital stay is pneumonia.
In addition to increased risk of contracting pneumonia, aging immune systems may have a more difficult time fighting an infection once it occurs. Medical treatment may also present difficulties, thanks in part to the challenge of balancing pneumonia medications with existing prescriptions.
Pneumonia Symptoms in the Elderly
Pneumonia most often has bacterial or viral origins. The most common bacterial cause is streptococcus pneumoniae, also called pneumococcus, followed by staphylococcus aureus. Viral pneumonia most often caused by the influenza virus. In all, over 30 different organisms may cause pneumonia. This variability also leads to wide variations in symptoms.
General symptoms develop quickly and include:
- Aching muscles
- Chest pain at the infected lung site, with possible abdominal pain on the same side
- Chills followed by fever
- Nausea and vomiting
- Night sweats
- Rapid breathing and/or shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Weight loss
Emergency symptoms are those indicating a medical emergency. If you experience the following, consult your physician immediately:
- Bloody substance produced by cough
- Blue-toned skin
- High fever
- Labored breathing
- Mental confusion
Symptoms vary by type as well as by age group. Seniors often do not experience the same symptoms. Often, seniors with pneumonia experience nothing more than loss of appetite, fatigue, mental confusion, and a feeling of dizziness. You may simply feel run down. Do not ignore this, especially if the feeling persists for a several days.
Your doctor will perform an examination, relying heavily on the stethoscope to listen for sounds indicating pneumonia.
Next, they attempt to pinpoint the type of pneumonia you have, starting with whether it is viral or bacterial in nature. This typically includes various blood and urine tests, as well as chest x-rays. If you have certain chronic conditions, such as immune problems, or complications, your physician may request further diagnostic procedures.
The doctor also considers your medical history and environmental factors, such as whether you live in a nursing home.
All of these diagnostics will help determine the proper course of treatment. This includes where it may occur, whether at home or in the hospital, as well as whether to prescribe antibiotics.
If your doctor orders home treatment, they will instruct you to drink at least 1 quart of liquids daily, abstain from smoking, and take your temperature several times each day. They will instruct you to avoid taking a cough suppressant, as coughing helps clear the infection from your lungs. Finally, if given a prescription for antibiotics, be sure finish the entire prescription.
If your doctor orders hospital treatment, you typically receive antibiotics via IV for approximately one week and remain in the hospital until your vitals return to normal. This includes temperature, heart and respiration rate, mental function, blood pressure, appetite, and oxygenation.
Although pneumonia is contagious, it is preventable. Start with the pneumococcal vaccine, preferably getting your first dose while still in your 50s, with a second dose at age 65, and every five years from then on. In addition, get your flu shot yearly.
Practice healthy habits in general, including moderate aerobic exercise, a healthy diet, washing your hands regularly, and getting plenty of rest. Finally, practice good dental hygiene, as infected teeth elevate pneumonia risk.
As with everything related to your health, prevention is easier than treatment.